The ‘organised hypocrisy’ of US industrial policy

“[O]rganised hypocrisy…characterises American industrial policy…mostly tucked away from public and academic attention, the US government has not had to navigate the tensions inherent in telling other countries–directly in bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements and indirectly through structural adjustment programmes in the interstate organisations where it is the dominant actor–‘do as I say, not as I do’. It says simply, ‘do as I (say I) do’. And so, ever since the 1980s, American and other Western governments have applied strong pressure on developing countries to ‘follow comparative advantage’ and keep specialising in exportable primary commodities, tourism and cheap-labour assembly manufacturing and to stop pressing for ‘policy space’ to develop production capabilities. This pressure continues imperial countries’ long history of trying to stop peripheral countries from entering dynamic sectors. The post-1980s push relies not on gunboats, colonial restrictions and racial ideology, but on conditional lending, ‘free trade’ agreements and neoclassical theory-the latter apparently justifying the proposition that developing countries should stick to their sectors of comparative advantage in their own best interest. This is a prescription for sustaining the core-periphery structure of the world economy, in which the activities with increasing returns, high linkages and high price and income elasticity of demand are located mainly in the core, sustaining the core’s prosperity relative to the periphery. One lesson…is that policy communities in other countries and interstate development organisations such as the World Bank and IMF should push pack when American policy makers and academics urge them to stick to the Washington Consensus ‘fundamentals’, whose efficacy can be seen from the economic success of the USA. The key point is this. For a developing country to sustain movement of the production structure into higher value-added activities (deploying technologies mostly developed elsewhere) the Washington Consensus agenda–opening the economy to the international economy and improving institutions of exchange–is at most a necessary condition. The American experience, and that of just about all the post-Second World War success stories, underlines the need for public policies to incentivize the production of some activities over others. Creating a level playing field does not ensure that the players turn up to play.”

Robert Wade, Cambridge Journal of Economics, May 2017

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